Today I watched Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
I am sure you all know the basic story of Jesus, a Jewish carpenter in Roman occupied Judea who becomes the messiah and whose teachings Christianity is based on. This film is based on a controversial book of the same name which focuses not on the overblown events but on the internal struggle of Jesus as a human. The film likewise focuses on his deconstructions of morality and his questioning of purpose. Skipping the birth, the film begins with Jesus as a carpenter who makes crosses for the Romans. He is driven to this bloody work by a deep self loathing as he is torn between the knowledge that god has a plan for him and his own human desires. But Jesus cannot run from his purpose and soon he heads into the desert to be closer to god, of course they send him back because his purpose is among the people. The film continues with the events of his life until finally coming to the Crucifixion and the titular last temptation in which Jesus steps down from the cross and returns to live a normal life with wives and children, but of course, this is a temptation.
Much like Superman, Jesus is often portrayed as insanely boring, a Mary sue to end all Mary sues. He is often portrayed as so knowing and wise, consigned to his fate with the dignity of purity. This is the worst kind of power fantasy I think, because there is no struggle for either Superman or Jesus, sure there is pain, but their ability to accept said pain is so inhuman that it negates any drama. Thankfully this film takes a totally different approach than this, this is a Jesus who struggles, who hurts, who fails, but in the end ultimately succeeds. This is so much more identifiable because my life is not a linear progression of pure success as the Jesus story is often portrayed, heroes who struggle are so much more interesting because I can identify with them. This also touches on the main theme of Christianity, that being self sacrifice for some ineffable ideal of goodness, if you don’t present Jesus as having human desires, then what does he sacrifice? Nothing, and thus so many retellings of the Jesus story fall completely flat. To this end the casting of Willem Dafoe turns out to be pitch perfect as he not only presents him as human but also as a deeply unsettling agent provocateur.
The one fault I find with this movie is one many people have found, and his name is Harvey Keitel, who plays Judas. Now I think Keitel is a totally solid performer and he does get into the emotions of his character, but he also never leaves New York behind. What I mean by that is that he still has the mannerisms and subtle accent of a New Yorker and it is very distracting. This is really unfortunate because of how this film tries to redeem Judas as a good person, who did not betray Jesus but helped him to go through with the most difficult part of his mission, the sacrifice. Even if the execution of Judas is a little poor, I really like this way of looking at his character, it really fits into the greater themes at work. And those themes are really what make this movie stand out, especially among the legion of lesser Christian film attempts. I would honestly rank this as the second or third best christian film I have seen after The Exorcist and Andrei Rublev, it presents the theme of self sacrifice, love, and goodness with an uncommon maturity and humanity that will always have a relevance in human culture. 5/5